Sat, 07 May 2005

American Splendor. I saw it at the theatre about a year ago, but I wanted to take another look on DVD. It’s still a pretty good show.

One observation. One of Harvey Pekar’s definitive comic stories – “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” – is reproduced in the film. In the original story, as drawn by Robert Crumb, Harvey simply stands in front of a blank wall and tells the story of how there came to be three listings in the Cleveland phone book with the unlikely name of “Harvey Pekar”. For forty-eight consecutive frames, our perspective of Harvey never varies – we never get closer, or see him from another angle. Now and then, he turns slightly to one side or the other, scratches his belly, grimaces, but basically he just stands there relating the story, like a stand-up comic without a microphone. Or a punchline. In fact, the last frame contains no words, just Harvey staring out at us, his story finished, waiting for us to turn the page. The whole thing is a masterpiece of understatement. It’s hilarious and slightly sad.

In the movie, as Paul Giamatti’s Harvey tells the story, he wanders to and fro, is dropped into a street scene, shares the frame briefly with a ringing telephone, and is otherwise buffetted on all sides by every trick of animation the filmmakers can muster. There’s ten times more stuff going on than in the comic, and it’s ten times less interesting.

I’m not sure if the lesson is simply that less is more. I think the point is that comics and film are very different media, and a speech carried over from comic to screen is going to suffer by having its natural rhythms disrupted. At one point in the story Harvey describes the first time he saw the other Harvey listed in the phone book: “I was listed as Harvey L. Pekar…my middle name is Lawrence…he was listed simply as Harvey Pekar – no middle initial…therefore his was a purer listing.”

The line isn’t particularly funny as I’ve quoted it above. What makes it work in the comic is that it’s broken up over two frames, over two rows in fact, and the eye has to travel from one frame, down a row, and over to the left side of the page in order to read “…therefore his was a purer listing.” I can’t explain why this is somehow funnier than reading the passage all in one chunk. It’s a question of rhythm, as ineffably and undeniably correct as a Groucho Marx line reading or a Fred Astaire dance move. In the film, Paul Giamatti gives the line the best reading he can – the fact that “purer” is an exceptionally hard word to clearly enunciate couldn’t have helped – but the scene just isn’t very funny.

Now, the screenwriter wasn’t necessarily going for funny when he incorporated this speech into the film, and I’m not saying it doesn’t work in context. I just thought it was interesting to compare it to the original. Pekar comes across as little more than a grouchy working class schlub in the film – there’s very little focus on the artistic side of his life – which is a pity, because for a guy who “can’t even draw a straight line”, as he says, he’s an exceptionally talented comic book artist. You need to go to the source material to be reminded of that.

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